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I received an email from a reader in response to my last post on PETA’s exposing of problems with the treatment of research animals at UNC. The reader pointed me to the website of an organization concerned with the treatment of lab animals in the Research Triangle, www.serat-nc.org. And, she wrote the following:
Some people may think that PETA is extreme. However, the true “extreme” is what happens to animals in labs. If the public knew, most would be outraged. But, of course our government hides such things very well. Those researchers who abuse animals in labs (which is ALL researchers, by my definition), cannot do an about turn and go home and not abuse animals or humans at their homes. Animal researchers are abusers, and there is enough research on people who abuse to know that abuse does not occur in isolation. The entire industry must change.
There are a bunch of claims here, some of which I’m going to pretty much leave alone because I don’t have the expertise to evaluate them. Frankly, I don’t know whether even the folks we would all agree are abusing animals in the lab are full-fledged abusers who cannot help but go forth and abuse spouses, children, family pets, neighbors, and such. (I’m not a psychologist or a sociologist, after all.) And, while I’d like to believe that the public would be outraged at unambigous cases of animal abuse, the public seems not to be outraged by quite a lot of things that I find outrageous.
I would, however, like to consider the claim that ALL researchers who do research with animals are abusing those animals.
First, I imagine there may be some research projects involving animal subjects where it’s hard to locate an actual harm to the animals. (Consider, for example, positive reinforcement experiments that train pigeons to type. The pigeons are put in the unnatural position of having to interact with a typewriter, but they get food, are protected from predators, etc. Is this a worse life than scrounging through garbage and avoiding city buses? What if we throw in a daily hot stone massage?) For the sake of argument, let’s set those aside.
I take it the animal research that is of real concern is that which brings about pain in the animals, or that which ends with the animals being “sacrificed” (i.e., killed). If we agree that animal pain and killing of animals are harms to be avoided (and not everyone will — the U.S. is a meat eating nation, after all), does that mean that all research that causes animal pain or the killing of animals ought to be stopped?
We’d need to consider the sorts of harms that might come from ceasing animal research. It would, for example, have a marked effect on biomedical research — including research with human subjects. The very first item in the Basic Principles in the World Medical Association Declaration of Helsinki reads:
Biomedical research involving human subjects must conform to generally accepted scientific principles and should be based on adequately performed laboratory and animal experimentation and on a thorough knowledge of the scientific literature.
In other words, ceasing research with animals heads off much new biomedical research with humans. You can’t test a new drug on humans if it hasn’t yet been tested in the appropriate animal system, no matter how promising that new drug may be. Unless WMA were to make significant revisions in the Declaration of Helsinki, an end to animal experimentation might mean an end to drug development and other lines of biomedical research. Ending animal suffering in the lab might mean there is more human suffering that we’re unable to address with medical treatment.
Of course, there’s the legitimate question of whether animal models are actually adequate models for the human conditions such biomedical science aims to address. (I’ve been told that we could cure most mouse cancers in fairly short order, but we’re still quite a ways off on the human cancers the mouse cancers were intended to model.) Lately, researchers have developed an array of alternatives to animal research (in vitro studies, computer models, etc.), but these approaches have their limits, too. Surely the best system for studying human diseases and their treatments would be humans, but experimentation on humans is no less ethically problematic than research on animals.
Goodness of fit between a model and the system that is the target of the modeling is something scientists have to grapple with all the time. There are always ways that the model departs from the target. The practical question is how to work out models that get the important features of the target right. It may be the case that, imperfect as animal models are, they are still the best models we have for certain phenomena we are trying to figure out. But especially when our model systems come with ethical costs (not only animal research but epidemiological studies with humans), it seems like critically examining the model and keeping an eye out for alternative models that might work better is a good idea.
One could object that some of the research done with animals is simply unnecessary. For example, two of the research studies flagged by SERAT as especially problematic are a study of binge-drinking using rats and a study of gambling using primates. Even if binge-drinking and gambling are human behaviors that are problematic and need to be addressed, it’s not obvious that the only ways to address them require a complete understanding of the underlying physiological mechanisms of these behaviors. Even if the physiology of binge-drinking or compulsive gambling were to remain something of a black box, there might be ways to change the environment to head off these behaviors.
Scientists might respond that knowing the physiological mechanism is of value even if we don’t need that knowledge to solve the problem of heading off harmful behavior. Sometimes knowledge is a good in itself. However, if that knowledge comes at a cost, it’s worth considering how that cost stacks up against the value of that knowledge. (Consider the costs of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, whose aim was knowledge about the natural history of untreated syphilis. Certainly, such information would have value, but its value didn’t justify the harms it brought to the subjects of the experiment.) So, the fact that scientists are curious and would like to get a piece of information does not, in itself, justify all the costs that getting to that knowledge might incur.
Careful readers that you are, you will have noticed that I’ve taken a consequentialist approach to this issue — one of balancing competing harms and benefits. While this is how most of those who worry about ethical use of animals usually frame the problem, there are others who feel that a more Kantian approach is in order. (Maybe “Kantian” is not quite the right label, since Kant was concerned with respect for persons, and with not undermining the rational capacity in oneself or others. But stick with me here.) In research with human subjects, there are some lines you are not allowed to cross, regardless of the potential benefits of crossing them. For example, here are two items in the Helsinki Declaration’s principles governing non-therapeutic research with human subjects:
1. In the purely scientific application of medical research carried out on a human being, it is the duty of the physician to remain the protector of the life and health of that person on whom biomedical research is being carried out.…4. In research on man, the interest of science and society should never take precedence over considerations related to the well-being of the subject.
The health and the life of a human research subject are always to be protected by the researcher. No matter what the payoff might be, whether in terms of solving practical problems for society or building scientific knowledge, you can’t sacrifice the subject’s health or life. This is a non-negotiable point — like Kant’s respect for persons — around which your consequentialist calculations have to work.
Perhaps there are such lines we ought to recognize with animals in scientific research. I think when they are working as they should, IACUCs are trying to find and respect those lines. But it is also clear that we live in a society that has few qualms about doing fairly nasty things to animals for the sake of cheap food production, or entertainment (think cock-fights), or biker-wear. That society at large doesn’t recognize a clear line separating appropriate and inappropriate ways to treat animals doesn’t mean there isn’t a line there we should recognize (as feminists, anti-racists, and the like will be happy to explain to you). My own hunch is that within a few generations, we may get to a point where certain ways of treating animals that are prevalent right now become unthinkable. But, not having gotten to that point makes it harder to argue for thoroughgoing changes in the rules for animal experimentation. As the situation at UNC illustrates, sometimes it’s hard to get people to even follow the rules that are in place.
That said, let me suggest again that it is a strength of the community of scientists that scientists don’t all march in lockstep on the matter of what humane treatment of laboratory animals require. Because different scientists have different views on this matter, they’re more likely to actually talk to each other about it. In the course of these talks, scientists sometimes come up with clever strategies to get more scientific information with less — or no — animal harm. Given that scientists, as a group, have shown themselves to be quite good at answering hard questions using limited data, it might not take all that long for them to work out good ways to eliminate the need for animals in certain research projects, and to minimize the need for animals in others.
And scientists probably ought to care about animal-use worries of the public, not just of other scientists. At the same time, though, scientists should be ready to explain to the public how their animal use is essential to the research, and how that research benefits the public. Then, if members of the public disagree with the scientists (e.g., deciding to forego a bird flu vaccine if it involves animal research of which these members of the public do not approve), that’s their choice. If no one used a medical treatment because of ethical qualms, the demand for that treatment would evaporate, and the researchers would turn their attentions elsewhere.
So, to my email correspondent: I’m not sure I think the problem of animal research is as black-and-white as you think it is. But, I’m inclined to think that science is moving toward higher standards for ethical use of animals, at least gradually. And, I think continued discussion on this issue is how that movement happens.